“I Had to Make My Own Toys:” Dr. Lau and the Inven­tion of the Laser Tracker

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“I Had to Make My Own Toys:” Dr. Lau and the Inven­tion of the Laser Tracker

In April of 1982, a young engi­neer stands in the base­ment of the National Bureau of Stan­dards (NBS), which will later become known as the National Insti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­no­logy (NIST). The base­ment has become a junkyard of castoff parts and equip­ment, long forgotten by most of the NBS employees. The young engi­neer, however, is not sear­ching for an old part; he’s looking for inspi­ra­tion in crea­ting some­thing enti­rely new. He’s come up with a revo­lu­tio­nary idea for a moving laser that can measure and cali­brate robotic perfor­mance in the manu­fac­tu­ring process, and he’s promised his boss that he can make a func­tio­ning model of his design in six months using nothing but the relics now laid out in front of him. What made this seemingly impos­sible task turn into the first model of the laser tracker that is now found in most machine tool shops in the world?

The young engineer’s name is Dr. Kam Lau, and he’s done this before.

Dr. Lau was born in the southern Chinese coastal town of Macau when it was still a Portu­guese terri­tory in the 1950s. When he was eight, the family moved to Hong Kong, where he became a citizen and spent the rest of his child­hood and early adult­hood. The youn­gest of seven children, four girls and three boys, Dr. Lau learned the value of working with his hands from a young age.

“My father was a carpenter,” Dr. Lau recalls. “And he passed away when I was only ten years old. My two brothers became heroes to me when I was young. I watched all my siblings and how they worked, and I appre­ciated how they brought back to the family.”

What his siblings brought home were the roots of an inqui­ring engi­nee­ring mind. “We weren’t a well-off family by any means,” Dr. Lau remem­bers. “I was lucky though. I was able to get an educa­tion, and I didn’t have to worry about food, but there was never any money for toys. So, I made my own.”

For Dr. Lau, making his own toys meant ever­ything from tying tin cans toge­ther to using his father’s tools to take apart pendulum clocks and sewing machines from around the house to put them back toge­ther. “My mother’s sewing machine was one of my favo­rite toys,” Dr. Lau says, laug­hing. And this child­hood tinke­ring sparked a lifelong inte­rest in buil­ding and creating.

In his neigh­bor­hood, there was a blacks­mith, a casting company, and several construc­tion sites. The young Dr. Lau would stand outside these busi­nesses for hours after school watching the machines and tools they used to make things from scratch. “Now I know I wanted to be an engi­neer, but at the time, I was so young, I didn’t know what engi­nee­ring was,” Dr. Lau remem­bers. “I just wanted to build and create and use whatever tools I had.”

This inte­rest in buil­ding led Dr. Lau to tech­nical college in Hong Kong, where he gained his first hands-on expe­ri­ence designing, machi­ning, and measu­ring his own parts. It was his first taste of the crucial role accu­racy plays in precision machining. 

But while tech­nical college was opening his eyes to the world of engi­nee­ring and manu­fac­tu­ring, some­thing else was about to open his eyes to the world outside of Hong Kong. “I still remember the first moment I wanted to come to the United States,” Dr. Lau recalls. “I was watching a movie with James Stewart. He played a professor, and he was riding a bike through the campus, and I thought ‘Gee, this is so beau­tiful.’ It was that moment, that scene of him riding a bike, the mood, the peace­ful­ness, and the buil­dings of the univer­sity, made it feel like a para­dise to me.”

Dr. Lau began rese­ar­ching American univer­si­ties, even­tually landing on the Univer­sity of Madison-Wisconsin. “I still didn’t have a lot of money,” Dr. Lau says. “But I knew it was a good school, and I thought they would give me the best value for my tuition.” After a year spent in the Lake Supe­rior campus, he trans­ferred over to the main Madison campus where he would stay until he finished his docto­rate in 1982. As part of a part­nership between the univer­sity and NBS, he created a large rese­arch project for more than a dozen students. This project landed him a posi­tion as a rese­ar­cher with NBS in January of 1982.

Initi­ally, Dr. Lau was placed on a team crea­ting soft­ware. “And I didn’t mind that,” Dr. Lau says. “I was good with soft­ware, but even­tually I went back to my old habits, to design things, to build things, to be able to touch some­thing.” And his tinke­ring led him to notice a hole in the manu­fac­tu­ring industry and a revo­lu­tio­nary idea.

In the early 1980s, Robo­tics were the new idea sweeping through every sector of the manu­fac­tu­ring industry. The major compa­nies were estab­li­shing robo­tics divi­sions, with GM going as far as part­ne­ring with Fanuc to create GMFanuc Robo­tics, one of the first major robo­tics part­ners­hips in the US. Yet there were signi­fi­cant issues with this first wave of auto­ma­tion. “They were not very capable of lifting heavy parts,” Dr. Lau remem­bers. “The vision systems weren’t as agile and capable as they are now. The computer to capture that infor­ma­tion and transfer it to the control became very expen­sive, and they weren’t very high speed.”

As a member of the Depart­ment of Commerce, NBS was tasked with clari­fying the capa­bi­li­ties of these robots, defi­ning what they can and cannot do. “So, from that I came up with the idea for the laser tracking system, Dr. Lau says. “The idea is that I can direct a laser beam to track the robot, and then can put it in an X,Y,Z grid and see pitch, roll, and yaw to see 6 degrees of freedom for the robot. I can use the infor­ma­tion to clas­sify the capa­bi­lity of the robot number one, and number two, I can use that info in real time to control the robot’s posi­tion, making it more precise.”

Dr. Lau took his initial designs to his boss and asked permis­sion to begin working on a proto­type design. “He said, ‘Kam, I don’t know how it will work, but go ahead and try it,’” Dr. Lau remem­bers with a chuckle. “I told him in six months time, I would show him a proto­type of the system.”

Which brings us back to the base­ment. “It was just like when I was young,” Dr. Lau says. “I went through the junkyard of NBS and tried to pick things out. I took a banished laser inter­fe­ro­meter, a very old rotary table, and that kind of formed the base of my laser tracking system.”

Six months later to the day, Dr. Lau returned to his boss’ office. It was after 6:30, and most ever­yone had gone home for the night. Dr. Lau asked his boss if he could come to the base­ment to see what he had been working on. “He’d forgotten; he had no idea what I was doing,” Dr. Lau laughs. “He was shocked when I showed him this very primi­tive tracker made from old compon­ents that had been thrown away. But I was able to visibly demons­trate the laser inter­fe­ro­meter moving back and forth on a rotary table to capture the optical target moving sideways.”

Things moved very quickly from there. Two days later, he was presen­ting the first design of the laser tracker to the direc­tors of NBS. And he was no longer in the base­ment; he was in the lab. The following day, Dr. Lau presented the system to repre­sen­ta­tives from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The NBS Marke­ting team came in to take photos and publish stories about the new breakthrough.

“The inte­rest was very high,” Dr. Lau remem­bers. “And suddenly we had funding. I had been working alone, and now I was placed in charge of a team of four or five people to build the first proto­type. I could go into the details of the design and make parts instead of using compon­ents from the junkyard.” With this funding came a host of new problems to solve to make the tracker repeat­able and appli­cable to real manu­fac­tu­ring situa­tions. But Dr. Lau was never concerned.

He was making his own toys again.

Check back next month for Part 2 of Dr. Lau’s story, “The Birth of API”

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